Category Archives: biographical

HOW TO STOP TIME by Matt Haig

This book reminded me enormously of John Boyne’s THE THIEF OF TIME because the main protagonist is a man who does not age. In this instance, Tom Hazard, born in 1581 has worked for Shakespeare, dined at the next table from Charlie Chaplin, witnessed his mother being drowned for witchcraft, sailed with Captain Cook, and drunk cocktails with F Scott Fitzgerald. Yet he can still pass himself off as 40 odd years old when he applies to teach history in a London comprehensive, a stone’s throw from where he lived with his one true love Rose, victim of the Great Plague.

HOW TO STOP TIME is, on one level, the story of Tom’s quest to find the child he had with Rose – a daughter named Marion who inherited her father’s condition and from whom he was separated when Tom was forced to flee is family to keep them safe from superstitions of the day. This quest has seen him become indebted to 900 year old Hendrich, who heads up a society dedicated to tracking down other “albas” or albatrosses and keeping them safe from discovery from the mere mortals known as “mayflies” that die after around 70 years. Hendrich promises Tom he is making full use of all the society’s extensive resources to hunt for Marion too and in return expects Tom to help him draw the other albas that surface into the society. Motivated by a paranoid fear of becoming the victim of a biotech company science experiment, Hendrich makes all the albas in the society start their lives over every eight years to avoid detection. One of the tasks he entrusts to Tom is reeling in newly discovered albas – or killing them if they refuse to cooperate and therefore risk putting the other members of the society in jeopardy. When Tom is sent to Australia to enlist Pacific Islander Omai, who he has not seen for hundreds of years, he finds his old friend has a different take on longevity and life’s purpose, putting them both on a collision course with the increasingly unhinged and obsessive Hendrich.

On another level this is a beautiful love story. Tom’s loyalty to Rose is sweetly conveyed and evocative of a time when love seemed so much purer and simpler. His return to London is a pilgrimage to his memory of Rose and yet, for the first time since she died, Tom meets someone else there to whom he is attracted – Camille, a fellow teacher at the school where he ends up working. Torn between Rose’s memory and a desire to experience the present again rather than just mark time, Tom starts to struggle with the logic which has governed his life for so long, making him cautious about not forming ties for example. He soon finds himself unable to overcome the pull Camille is exerting, throwing caution to the wind and opening up to her about his secret.

On yet another level, HOW TO STOP TIME is a commentary on our relationship with the past. It dwells on the way we repeat the mistakes of the past – “we had done what so often happened in the proud history of geographic discovery. We had found paradise. And then we had set it on fire.” Haig ponder humankind’s apparent ability for endless self destruction. It’s full of comparisons between events now and those in history – “Superstition is back. Lies are back. With hunts are back”. He takes every opportunity to send up the  present – “No one I knew in the 1600s wanted to find their inner billionaire. They just wanted to live to see adolescence and avoid body lice.” And despite lines like this he mostly romanticises the past,  successfully getting away with it and helped by the fact he’s subtly avoided this being a historic novel that requires accuracy and instead the history is just part of the clever conceit he has created. This is a writer supremely confident with his subject matter and he never labours these big underlying themes.

What I loved most about HOW TO STOP TIME though, was how it works as a reflection on what it means to live – and how difficult it is to simply inhabit the present moment, no matter whether that moment is in 1581 or 2017. Rather than relishing his virtual immortality, Tom is weary of life and only keeps going because of his desire to find Marion, and in doing so himself. He struggles throughout to be actually here in the now, to stop the ghosts of other nows from getting in. Meeting Omai again opens Tom’s eyes to how this might be possible, as does falling for Camille. He learns that happiness is not about living an ordinary mayfly life, but about finding the point of living the life you have. That even when love is dangerous it’s the whole point. And that “In those moments that burst alive the present lasts for ever” because “the only way to stop time is to stop being ruled by it.”

I wanted to live in this book forever.

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SWING TIME by Zadie Smith

Wow – this is Smith back on form and with a novel that’s apparently superficial plot about a young woman working for a Madonna inspired superstar belies its dark heart and complex sub narratives.

It opens with the unnamed narrator hiding out from the press in an upmarket London apartment block. Then it takes us on a journey of discovery about what she has done to end up there. Moving back and forth in time, we explore her childhood on a London estate, raised by a black mother, an ambitious community activist determined to chase an education for them both, and a white father, who turns his back on promotion to go back to working as a postman.

As an adult she has difficult relationships with both parents, caught up as she is in a transient life that spans every continent. They simultaneously make her feel guilty and proud, with encounters prompting both memories and soul searching about the accuracy and meaning of those memories. From a childhood with strong roots and connections she moves into an adult lifestyle where being off line for 72 hours is “among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times”.  Despite her apparent success at escaping the estate where she grew up, the replacement is not as glittering and glamorous as it appears and the lack of real connections with people and places dogs our narrator. She feels she has spent her life attaching herself to the light of other people – first Tracey her childhood friend and dance prodigy, later Aimee, singer, dancer, tyrant, benefactor, adoptive mother and one of a category of people “of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune.”

The layers beneath this story of a girl making something of her life are remarkable. Smith isn’t afraid to tackle big topics here – with a lightness and subtlety that means I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to check I had them right. Most notable is when the narrator discovers Tracey is being abused, a realisation they both treat as “absolutely true and obviously untrue”, prompting the observation “perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these”. The idea of children being a mix of knowing and innocence is something Smith comes back to again and again, including in the shape of a universal “girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

She cleverly picks apart notions of success and happiness, and also delivers wonderfully astute and social commentary. In common with Smith’s other novels, she mocks all her characters and the prejudices, assumptions and inconsistencies with which they go forth into and shape their worlds. So for example, the other mothers disapprove of Tracey’s mother finding a job and neglecting her children almost as much as they were critical of her being a lazy and unemployed. Everyone is trying to better themselves, to escape, to change, and yet, Smith forces us to ask, what exactly does better mean? This is starkly brought home by the contrast between what Aimee’s body guard sees when the entire entourage travel to Gambia to help build a school and what our narrotor sees:  “Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty…” And do we measure our own success objectively or always in relation to someone else’s?

SWINGTIME has a soundtrack to die for and language that sings. It has characters that seem familiar and at the same time intriguing. It has a story that flies of the page and says important things about race, about class and about gender. Pretty much all I could want from a novel, really.

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A COMPLICATED KINDNESS by Miriam Toews

a complicated kindness by miriam toews

Sixteen year old Nomi is about to leave school and “already anticipating failure”. Her favourite quote is “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge” and she wonders if it’s possible to donate her body to science before she’s actually dead.

She lives with her father, Ray, in a small Mennonite town called East Village. Her mother, Trudie, and older sister, Tash, left town a while back. One day Nomi finds her mum’s passport and wishes she hadn’t – the “Obscenely, heartbreakingly hopeful” story she has told herself involves Trudie travelling the world, having adventures.

Growing up Tash and Nomi are allowed to “listen to the names of dead people being read out in a terrifying monotone” but not “the Beatles singing all we need is love”. Ray spends a lot of time at the local dump “where he could organize abandoned dreams and wrecked things into families, in a way, that stayed together.” He and his daughter communicate mostly by writing notes to one another. He is “stuck in the middle of a story with no good ending”. She is smart, rebellious and will never leave him behind. The complicated kindness that gives the book its name might set them both free but will it make them happier?

This came highly recommended so I was looking forward to reading it. It’s a sweet, simple, poignant and funny coming of age novel  and Toews has won various awards – presumably in large part because the way she’s depicted life in East Village is incredibly authentic. But truth be known I was rather disappointed. Despite all that’s going for it, A COMPLICATED KINDNESS left me feeling something was missing or lacking. There was so much potential and yet it didn’t really go anywhere other than the kind of dead end that’s East Village. Perhaps that was Toew’s intention, I don’t know, but whilst I wanted to finish her book, much like Nomi I was also very much looking forward to being out of there.

 

 

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

sweet caress by william boyd

Moving with accomplished ease between the 1970’s and flashbacks to her earlier life, this novel is told via the journals of its main protagonist, Amory Clay. A daring and alluring war photographer she falls into history and into relationships with an irresistible spirit, and Boyd has created a character that’s one of the most rounded and interesting I’ve encountered in a novel for some time. From the seminal attempted suicide of her father by way of driving the car bearing himself and his daughter into a lake, to the more widely defining events of the 2nd world war and the war in Vietnam, Amory rarely experiences a dull moment. The pages are interspersed with photos documenting her life and enriched with a smattering of real life characters, including Diane Arbus and Martha Gellhorn. It’s an intimate and intelligent portrait of one hell of a woman and of different points in time.

However, for all that, I was left slightly dissatisfied by SWEET CARESS because I don’t feel it works as something whole and complete. Boyd has so successfully recreated the sense of a memoir as a collection of episodes that inevitably make up a life, that he’s missed out on providing the kind of unifying coherence most lives lack – we don’t tend towards tidy existences that fall naturally into chapters or linear narratives – but which I instinctively seek out from a novel.

In Amory Clay, Boyd has created a character more real than fiction and it’s ironic that this kind of backfires. It’s a small criticism, and didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the book, but it did mean that I was wondering where SWEET CARESS was going much of the time and still don’t know, despite having read to the end. I am glad I stayed with it, nonetheless, and it gave me an interesting sense of perspective to be reading a book about tumultuous times during the political storms of the EU referendum aftermath – both from a historical stance and with an eye to how individuals can choose to navigate the chaos that is erupting around us.

 

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LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN by Alice Munro

lives of girls and women by alice munro

I read the first few chapters of this book months ago but couldn’t really get into it. I was determined to try again and this time I did find myself drawn in much more. But I also found large sections of it didn’t hold my interest and, on finishing it, I am left feeling rather untouched by the experience. It’s a shame because I desperately wanted to love it, and I know Munro’s writing is lovely, but something is definitely lacking here. Partly to blame, I think is that it felt much more like a series of connected short stories than a coherent novel.

LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN is a coming of age story that centres around Del Jordan, resident of the small rural Canadian town of Jubilee, daughter of a silver fox pelt farmer and an encyclopedia saleswoman. As she navigates her way through adolescence in the 1940s, Del seeks to balance the expectations of her mother, who wants her to use her brain and make something of herself, with those of Jubilee, which generally frowns on standing out from the crowd for your achievements, and those of her peers, who are mainly just interested in sex, whether that’s talking about it, having it or negotiating how to have it and remain respectable. Through all of this Del must find out what she wants, which we learn some way in, is to be like a man: “able to go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck of what they didn’t want and come back proud”. This, Del determines is far preferable to the life of a woman, which she observes as being “damageable” and calling for “a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self protection.”

I might have enjoyed it more, if this decision prompted some kind of plot or action. It didn’t. It just meant she took a few risks like going to a Baptist revival and having sex before marriage, like every other girl in town. That’s  part of the problem, I think – nothing much happens. This is a book of emotional landscapes and every day minutiae, which is all very well but not for over 300 pages and not without anything much else as relief.

To be fair, there’s some great characters – Del’s mother in particular, a self styled progressive, who preaches the importance of contraception but fails to even talk to her daughter about getting fitted with a diaphragm. Munro delivers some brilliant one liners too, my favourite being “”Love is not for the underpilated”.  And she’s tackling an important subject too, with some interesting observations about the changing role of women and the gap between what society will acknowledge and the reality that lies beneath. But other writers do all this and grab my attention too. Munro didn’t and, for that reason, whilst I am glad I gave it another go, this is not a book I’ll be in a hurry to read again or recommend.

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THE DANISH GIRL by David Ebershoff

the danish girl by david ebershoff

As is generally the case, I wanted to read this novel before going to watch its much acclaimed film adaptation. I’ve not yet watched it on the big screen but I suspect the film will be fascinating and, as is generally NOT the case in my experience, may well be better than the book. Not that the book is bad – far from it – but I think the main character’s transition from a man into a woman will be all the more powerful for the visual perspective gained by the film. Ebershoff’s novel conveys his protagonist’s emotional and psychological state of mind with sensitivity and great insight, but I want to see the woman he becomes, not least because external transformation is so closely tied up with the character’s internal identity.

Inspired by a true story, the character in question is actually a Danish painter, Einar Wegener, who becomes Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. What I found most interesting about the book though is less its account of groundbreaking surgery and Lili’s experiences, and more Ebershoff’s intimate portrait of an unconventional marriage – one in which love really does mean setting your partner free. It’s Einar’s wife, Greta, who first encourages him to dress as a woman, for one of her paintings, and Greta who finds a doctor who will operate on her husband. Although her character is less developed than that of Einar and Lili, Greta’s story was actually what held my attention the most and I’m interested to see whether this is the case in the film too.

The cast of the novel is small and there’s something very contained and delicate about it – much like Lili herself. It explores incredibly complex issues, including the way in which Lili and Einar are discrete identities rather than different facets of one person, but doesn’t labour them or seem to set out to make any kind of statement. Ebershoff gives us the mechanics – Lili putting avocado stones in the cups of her camisole, for example, as well as the surgical details of her reassignment – and he gives us detail, including the most exquisite descriptions of Lili’s clothes, and of the “black bread and smoked salmon sprinkled with dill” that she eats for breakfast. The language is often very deliberate and artistic – words are as carefully chosen as the garments, make up and jewellery Lili uses to create the self she presents to the world. The whole is a thing of beauty that allows us to see the pain beneath it – Ebershoff doesn’t shrink away from Einar’s agony, both physical and emotional, nor from the exhaustion caused” by the world failing to know who he was”.

A deeply touching and intelligent book and I dearly hope the film lives up to my expectations.

 

 

 

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